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Saudis Must Wake Up

May 15, 2003

Officials in Saudi Arabia had a ready answer for the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers who attacked New York and Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, were from their nation. They dismissed the terrorists as "deviants" and compared them to Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 bomber of the Alfred P. Murrah building in Oklahoma City. But Monday night's attacks on three housing complexes in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, should persuade the many princes in the realm that they are targets not of isolated psychopaths but of highly organized terrorists with money, expertise and a willingness to die for their cause. Unless the Saudis join forces more tightly with Washington to fight Al Qaeda, the presumed instigator of the attacks, the Riyadh government is signing its own death warrant.

The suicide bombings that killed more than 30 people, including seven Americans, also demonstrated that despite recent optimistic pronouncements by President Bush, the State Department's top counter-terrorism official and the Saudi interior minister, Al Qaeda has not been sidelined. The Saudi Arabia-spawned organization of Osama bin Laden, formerly considered less troublesome in Riyadh if it conducted its operations outside the country, remains a threat despite the arrests or killing of many of its leaders.

Saudi officials must cooperate with FBI investigators in the hunt for those who planned the attack -- nine of the assailants died in the bombings -- and in continuing the search for Bin Laden's money. U.S. officials say more than $100 million in alleged terrorist funding has been frozen around the world since 9/11, but Bin Laden had scores of companies in Africa and the Middle East before then and much of his money is considered still undiscovered. The kingdom also is a source of funding for groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which carry out suicide bombings in Israel.

Especially troubling was the success of the attack despite weeks of warnings about the possibility of assaults on U.S. interests in Saudi Arabia, a repressive nation with pervasive security agencies. The State Department issued a more specific warning than usual this month, and Riyadh, in a highly unusual move, displayed pictures in the media of 19 alleged terrorists after the government failed to capture them in a gun battle last week. The U.S. ambassador said his request for more security around U.S. installations was not heeded, a dreadful lapse.

Crown Prince Abdullah's condemnation of the attacks included a welcome denunciation of "any ideology" that promoted terrorism and justified crimes in the name of Islam. However, the government's sponsorship of the fundamentalist Wahhabi wing of Islam creates an atmosphere that leads many mosques to echo with anti-American tirades. Saudi Arabia cannot remain blind to the links between government-sanctioned Islamic extremists and terrorism like Monday's. It also should view the atrocities not as isolated incidents but possible precursors to more violence against U.S. interests and perhaps attacks on the ruling family itself.

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